Created: May 1997
Updated: February 22, 2021
The smallest block should not be smaller than a 1x2 and even that is a choking hazard for the very young. I think giving these to younger children who still put all into their mouths is just asking for trouble. Also, blocks hurt when thrown or smashed down. I think going with the 1.5” sizing multiple for younger children and 1" sizing multiple is a better choice for older. I chose to use real 1" thick stuff. With a 1 1/2" thick goal, you need to either make a smaller set, or plan on using even more than the 18 board feet I use.
The set I made for my own kids years ago with a 1” sizing multiple piles into a 17" x 11" x 11" box (standard box for photocopy paper), but we quickly learned a block set without a box or wagon to store the blocks in is a pain for Mom & Dad. My set got moved into a nice maple wagon whose bed inside is 18.24" x 24.25" x 3.5". I think it was instructive for my children to have to fit all back into the wagon. The extra quarter inch makes the blocks easy to put in and get out. That size wagon holds 1.5 x 2 = 3 board feet per layer times four layers giving 12 board feet. The good news is this size makes one honker of a set that is just about as big as kids can use or handle. It has about twice as many blocks as the sets we found in stores.
The bad news is with the cost of 5/4" maple here this is not one of those trivial scrap gifts that we can whip out by the dozens. We need to buy 5/4" stock to get the real 1" thickness and 2” stock to get our 1.5" thickness, plus there is a lot of waste for saw kerfs, etc. I needed 16 to 18 board feet provided I picked and laid out the stock carefully to make sure to get an even number of blocks from both the width and length. It's easy to need another couple of feet. I did make a few sets out of scrap, but found that was a real pain. I made one set out of oak firewood, and that came out well, but took a lot more work.
This set pictured which I made for my children is half walnut and half maple. A friend's dad had a stash of rough-cut 6/4 black walnut from their ranch and after helping them with some work, they let me have that walnut! Although the walnut is toxic if chewed, my children were out of the chewing stage, so that combination really looked nice.
Let's Build Them
Making the blocks is not that hard, but be extra careful as there is a lot of repetition and small parts that can lead to accidents.
- Use a non-toxic and minimally splintering wood like hard rock maple.
- Make all dimensions the same multiples of each other, e.g., 1x2x2, 1x2x4, 1x2x6, 1x2x8, 1x2x12, 1x4x4, 1x4x6, 1x4x8, etc.
- I used 1" as my standard and started with 5/4 hard rock maple and black walnut. I used my jointer and planer then ran all through the belt sander to create real 1" thick pieces.
- Layout then got a bit involved as I had to account for the kerfs meaning 1/8" width of each saw cut and allow 1/16" sanding on all sides. With that extra material gone an 8" wide board cannot make two 4" wide boards. To make two 4" wide blocks you need to start with at least an 8" plus 1/8" for a saw cut plus 4 x 1/16" = 1/4" to sand the resulting four edges meaning we need to start with at least an 8 3/8" wide board. I did make sure there were a few long big blocks to use for roofs and bases.
- I then cut all to width doing rip cuts. For the arches I had to rip a double wide strip that was 1/8" oversize for the eventual rip cut to split the piece, plus two 1/16" extra to sand 1/16" on each size giving me a 1/4" oversized cut. I then joined and sanded the long ripped pieces carefully to size.
- I then ran all four long edges over a 1/8" quarter round on my router table. To ensure consistency I used a router bit with a bearing that rubbed below the cut. The rounding over with some light sanding made for nice smooth block edges that will not splinter easily.
- For the arches I also wanted to make sure the cut-out rounds would fit back in the holes snugly. To cut out the holes that would make the half rounds I first used a hole saw the same diameter as the width of the block to be cut. It took me a while to find a really good quality hole saw with a fine kerf that made very clean holes. My hole saw only had a 1/16" kerf which made my rounds 1/16" too small. I used the hole saw setup in my drill press with the wood clamped firmly in place so I did not have to use a guide drill. I then put holes down the double wide strip following my precise layout. I then used a sanding drum on my drill press to lightly sand the holes smooth making my holes a full 1/8" too small. With the hole plugs removed I then ripped the long piece in half. The 1/8" ripping cut kerf reduced the holes by 1/16" more on each side making the cutout round fit 1/16" too small. I then cut the remaining rounds in half using a very fine 1/16" kerf blade and guide on my scroll saw to make half moon shaped rounds which after sanding ended up being 1/8" undersized making a nice looking fit in the set.
- My Makita SCMS with a stop block worked wonders in helping me to cut all the blocks to length. It cuts so smoothly that the ends needed minimal sanding.
- After the cross cuts I used a lot of backer boards held tight with small clamps and my GRR-ripper clamps to route the quarter rounds on the ends and all the curved pieces. Without backer boards the end grain cuts would invariably chip or shatter. The backer boards and clamps made it easier and safer to hold the pieces for routing the ends.
- Make the arches 1" in radius on 4" wide blocks. with 1" on each side creating a 1x2x4 with the half circle on the 4" side.
- Make some 1" diameter by 4" length dowels and some 2" diameter by 8" length dowels to go with the arches. These were turned on my pen turning lathe using a guide to ensure exact consistent sizes.
- Sand to at least 220 grit, preferably 440.
- Finish with a safe finish or leave unfinished. I used three very thin coats of wipe on poly for all the finishing. Poly for me was better than mineral or Tung oil as it is hard so helps stop the splintering, dries quickly without having to be babied, and these durn things have to be cleaned once in a while. Poly does clean up like new quickly.
And one big caution, this is one of those highly repetitive tasks that can easily get taken for granted and lead to an inattention accident. While making this set of blocks I sanded a knuckle pretty good at about one in the morning. Those sanded knuckles inspired me to buy a set of GRR-Ripper holders to hold those smaller blocks and save my fingers.